China launched a new wave of Xinjiang propaganda to accuse overseas Uyghurs of spreading lies
Over the last few weeks, Chinese state media launched a new wave of propaganda related to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, attempting to accuse overseas Uyghur activists of spreading lies through “testimonial videos” of their family members in Xinjiang. Some activists describe Beijing’s move as its way to cover up the fact that more than one million Uyghurs have been interned in Xinjiang over the last few years.
Mamutjan Abdurehim has been separated from his family members since December 2015, and ever since then, he has been trying to get information about his wife and his two children through different channels. However, apart from learning about his wife’s possible fate of being sentenced to five years in prison, he still can’t get any concrete update about his two children and his parents.
Last month, a group of journalists from CNN visited Abdurehim’s home in Xinjiang and they met his 10-year-old daughter Muhlise. When the journalists showed her the photo of Abdurehim, she recognized that the man was her father.
Muhlise told the CNN journalists that her mother is currently living with her grandparents and she can’t always meet her. Additionally, her younger brother also doesn’t live with her but she can see him regularly. When the journalists asked Muhlise whether she wanted to be reunited with her father, she said her passport has been confiscated and she couldn’t be reunited with her father in Australia.
When the journalists asked if she missed her father, she burst into tears in front of the camera. “My mother isn’t here and my father isn’t here,” she said sobbingly. “I just want to be reunited with them.”
A few days after CNN published the report, China’s state-run broadcaster CGTN published another report about Abdurehim’s family. They claimed that the three journalists from CNN claimed they were Abdurehim’s “classmates” when they visited his home in Xinjiang. The report also claimed that Abdurehim’s parents said he hasn’t contacted his family over the last five years and they urged him to return to Xinjiang as soon as possible.
“They said they were my father’s classmates,” Muhlise told CGTN. “They told me my father is now in Australia and asked if I want to go there to reunite with him. I said I don’t want to go abroad. I want to stay in Kashgar.”
CGTN said Abdurehim’s wife was arrested “on suspicion of provoking ethnic hatred in 2019,” forcing her parents to live with their grandparents. Muhlise told CGTN that she can talk to her mom through video calls and her mom said she is doing well. She asks her children not to worry about her.
CGTN also claimed that Abdurehim’s father said the family’s last phone conversation with Abdurehim was in April 2017 and said he hasn’t called them since then. CGTN said his father’s only wish is to see Abdurehim returning to Xinjiang.
Chinese state media's propaganda
After watching CGTN’s report, Abdurehim said the report reflects the typical pattern of CGTN’s propaganda since Beijing has been using similar ways to smear overseas Uyghur activists. “They have these relatives in Xinjiang denounce their family members overseas and ask these family members to stop their advocacy,” he said. “That was not surprising but because of the insulting tone of the video, I was very angry.”
He said he was furious about CGTN claiming that he hasn’t called his parents since 2017. In fact, his last attempt to call his parents happened in August 2019, and at the time, his mom asked him not to call them again.
Additionally, while his daughter told CGTN that the three journalists from CNN claimed to be his classmates, Abdurehim said CNN’s video showed that the journalists made it clear to Muhlise that their “colleagues” in Australia interviewed her father. However, Muhlise misheard the Mandarin word of “colleague” as “classmate,” causing her to think that they were her father’s classmates.
On the other hand, while CGTN claimed that Abdurehim’s parents urged him to return to Xinjiang and take care of his children, he said since his wife has already been accused of inciting ethnic hatred for not doing anything illegal, he can’t imagine what kind of things will the Chinese government do to him if he returns to Xinjiang.
“It’s ridiculous to ask me to go back while they detained my wife and persecuted my family,” Abdurehim said. “I can’t go back, but of course I want to talk to them. I want to bring them to Australia, which is a safe place for us to reunite. I will try my best to continue my advocacy in the hopes of securing the release of my wife and the reunion of my family.”
An emotionally complicated “reunion”
Comparing to Abdurehim, Arfat Erkin is no stranger to the Chinese state media’s propaganda campaign against him. In November 2019, China’s state-run tabloid Global Times released a series of videos featuring family members of overseas Uyghur activists, and Erkin’s mother and uncle were featured in the video. They accused him of spreading lies online and said they were disappointed about his behaviors.
Following the propaganda, Erkin continued to ask the Chinese government to share information about his father with him. In November 2019, Erkin shared on social media that he was informed by the United Nations that the Chinese government told them his father has been sentenced to 19 years and 10 months in prison for “harboring criminals and inciting national enmity or discrimination.” After that, he still couldn’t receive any information about his father’s whereabouts from the Chinese government.
However, on April 11, the CCP-run Zhejiang News published an article about a press conference in Beijing, during which officials from Xinjiang mentioned several overseas Uyghur activists and accused them of spreading many rumors about Xinjiang, which seriously mislead the international discussion on the topic.
In the report, officials from Xinjiang claimed that Erkin wrote on Twitter that his mom was sent to a re-education camp and his father may have been sentenced to 7 years or 11 years in February 2019. The report also said Erkin met with former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2019 as a family member of Uyghurs detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang.
The report included a “testimonial video” from Erkin’s father, which is the first time that he was seen in public since disappearing in 2018. His father said he was disappointed in Erkin after learning about what he has done over the last few years.
“This is not what I was expecting,” his father said in the video. “I always wanted you to be a good person, to learn things well. I wished you never followed the evils. I will try my best to change myself, to get leniency from the party and the government. I will try to come home to reunite with you soon.”
After viewing the video, Erkin said since he hasn’t seen his father over the last few years, he was happy to learn that his father is still alive. However, he is also sad to see his father becoming really thin. He said he could barely recognize him in the video.
Erkin believes that the Chinese government’s decision to release a video featuring his father has something to do with his advocacy abroad. He thinks this shows that Beijing still cares about its international image.
“I think for the Uyghurs whose family members have been detained in Xinjiang, it proves that speaking to foreign media works,” said Erkin. “Apart from my father, there have been other cases of family members of overseas Uyghur activists being released from prison or the re-education camps.”
He said other Uyghurs who have shared their testimonial videos on social media have also been contacted by the Chinese police. Chinese police told them that if they are willing to stop their advocacy works abroad, their family members in Xinjiang will be released.
How Beijing tries to cover up the facts with propaganda
To Abdurehim and Erkin, the latest Xinjiang propaganda from Beijing is obviously an attempt to push back against international criticism and condemnation about its policies in Xinjiang. Abdurehim said China is trying to cover up what they did in previous years by intensifying its Xinjiang propaganda.
“They are trying to cover up the internment part of this crisis as much as possible, but if they can’t hide in a specific case, they just put a label on it and said she or he has been sentenced to a certain number of years under a specific charge,” he said. “This is to make it easier for them to whitewash or justify their behaviors.”
Erkin said he doesn’t think Beijing can’t change how the international community thinks about what’s happening in Xinjiang through these propagandic efforts because the videos are clearly forced confessions. He thinks anyone with an understanding of the situation in Xinjiang will know how those videos are produced.
“ I think the primary audience of these videos is not the international community,” said Erkin. “They are catering these videos to Chinese people in China. For the Chinese people in China, there is no other source of information for the crisis in Xinjiang, which allows Beijing to control the narrative on this topic.”
Jewher Ilham, the daughter of imprisoned Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, said the propaganda videos are not trustworthy because several survivors of the Xinjiang re-education camps have described the situation in those camps through media interviews, and their description is the complete opposite from the Chinese state media’s reports.
“Their lives in Xinjiang is like a living hell and I’m not saying that everyone in the Uyghur region is locked up, but every Uyghur knows at least one person or an unlimited number of people that have been arrested, detained, or abused by the Chinese government,” Ilham said.
“The Chinese government’s own official records show that they are imprisoning a huge number of people, taking away people from their families and subjecting them to political indoctrination. These efforts are aiming to break our lineage and take the Uyghurs away from our roots and forget our origins are and who we really are.”
The report was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.